[I appreciate that the following must appear mean. I’m sorry – I bear no malice to Dave who is no doubt a decent person.  We moderates sit silently for most of the time, and are always in the shadow of the furious wrong, full of their passionate intensity]

It is 25 years since the Brighton Bombing (John Redwood was there).  And Dave Osler on Liberal Conspiracy has decided to use the anniversary to think aloud about a really difficult moral question: were the IRA within their rights, as he believed at the time ?  Gosh, it is amazing what time does to one’s thoughts on such knife-edge issues, because, now, it turns out, that Dave has changed his mind:

Would I feel like that now? . . . For me, the distance accorded by a third of the average lifetime is enough to put the matter in perspective. Humanism arrives to temper the abstractions.

Humanism arrives. It’s amazing what a mere 25 years’ thought can achieve: extraordinarily, even the callous victims of the bomb might have moral ascendancy now.  Or in Dave’s words.

Although I could not have imagined myself saying this in 1984, Tebbit obviously now has the moral high ground.

Really?  His wife bed-bound for 25 years, his own life almost ended . . . you don’t say.

Dave’s mea culpa is not the only one:  according to him it was widespread amongst ferocious Left-of-Left twenty-somethings to believe that actions like those of the IRA might further some great cause of the workers.  A great number of our current politicians went through a Trotsky phase when younger.  Kids eh?  They have to learn, somehow, I suppose.

Actually it annoys the hell out of a cautious, empirical moderate like me.  The higher reaches of Parliament – and the pages of Liberal Conspiracy – are populated by people who once believed stupid, illogical or plain nasty things.  Why should it be seen as brave or honest to admit they were terribly, nastily wrong?  They are, intellectually, the equivalents of scientists who were once Creationists, or Climate Change Deniers.  In any other profession this extraordinary determination to have a really strong view about something when 95% short of the required level of understanding and evidence, this arrogance, would quite straightforwardly render them unfit for future office in their profession.

It’s not like wearing flares or shoulder-pads,  or listening to the Thomson Twins*: people in the 80s had no choice about that.

Peter Hitchens is a good example. I hear he was once a Troskyist.  Now he is a stereotypically grumpy old Tory lamenting the disappearance of grammar schools.  Which one was right?  Argue amongst yourselves: all I can discern is that he was passionately full of his own self-belief at each stage, and determined that the world have his opinions, even when they were far away from 80% of the population.   The uniting theme – and the theme for so many thrusting politicians from Student Union to Research Unit to Safe Seat to Parliament to Government – is a belief in being right with absolutely no self-correcting mechanism, no reasoned examination of their views or evidence.

This unites a few themes for me: Keynes’ great insights into uncertainty and probability, the superiority of Liberalism (a doctrine that is extremely cautious about forcing extreme world views onto others), the strangely arrogant confusion of the Left looking for a new position to be certain about (see post on Aaronovitch versus Harris).

Dave is typical, I guess.  He was wrong in 1984, horribly monstrously wrong.  But instead of heading off into another area that did not involve trying to influence the political opinions of others – as you would, say, if you were a doctor who was horribly wrong when it came to diagnosis – he seems to be in the same business, still.  As is Peter Hitchens.

Ironically, Paul has written a post called “How to make excuses for your nasty friends“.  There should be another one for anyone who has ever been an extremist, be they National Front (‘oh, what an embarassing phase’), Soviet-supporting bohemians (‘but all my friends did it’) or Climate Denying (‘it was such a cold winter’):

“How to keep giving out confident political opinions despite your views being destroyed by events, logic and mature reflection for 25 years”


*or any music in that dire decade before the Stone Roses turned up


11 thoughts on “Rant: how can support for the IRA be a miscalculation?

  1. Blogging, it’s an addiction, eh?

    I feel your anger, though in different ways.

    Just for the record, of course, it’s important to list the bands that came out before the (excellent) Stone Roses (only the s/t record, not that Second Coming shit, mind) in that decade known as the 80s which was in fact full of musical genius:

    – The Smiths
    – Joy Division
    – The Cure
    – Some of Bruce “The Boss” Springsteen’s best work
    – Metallica

    To name but 5.

  2. Heh, Giles, this is a great post. You should come out from behind the spreadsheets more often.

    I sympathise with a lot of what you say, because I’m also the quite ‘liberal’ type, though (and perhaps unlike most) I’m actually moving further towards the left the older I get and the more evidence I accumulate.

    Coincidentally Paul S (commenter above) was suggesting earlier that I was a fully-badged Marxist, and I felt bound to remind him that I’d never said that about myself; the key reason for that is that I lack the total certainty of worldview that is felt to go nicely with calling oneself a Marxist, and prefer to describe myself, should I ever need to ,as a wishy-washy neo-Kantian sold on Judaeo-Christian moral duty, lightly sprinkled with Marxian thought.

    You did however, leave out Martha and the Muffins seminal ‘Echo Beach’, and there’s no excuse for that.

    And like you, who always seem to argue a case in the basis of the best evidence you have to hand and are prepared to take on board other evidence, I find it hard to understand the certainty of both those on the left and the right who would rather just take note of the evidence that suits the certainty of argument.

  3. Paul C,

    What you need is a great dollop of Hume and Nietzsche.

    Let’s get yout out of this unhealthy Kantian-Christian duty thing. It’s bad for you.

    Start here:


    Giles Fraser, being a Christian, tries to out-argue Nietzsche. It’s a very honourable effort – and in making it, Fraser expounds Nietzsches’ thought very, very well (something most fail to do, sadly) – but ultimately I think Fraser fails.

    This gives you a good starting point, however, to see what is really, really f-ed up about Christian ethics. And it’s Christian ethics which informs Kant the pietist.

  4. Paul S

    Now you have driven a real wedge between us. I think the 2nd Coming is very underrated, and the Smiths a sort of monotonal drone that deserves no place in the history of “music”. I keep trying the Boss and get nowhere.

    But you’re right about the Cure

    Giles Fraser is my local vicar – or rather, “person who stands at the front while competitive parents try to get their kids into linked schools every sunday”. Really charismatic guy. And now your reading and references are making me feel inadequate, again.

    Paul C, we seem to share a worldview there – it is the certainty that bothers me. marx seems to be a genius, just an overcertain one. The Internet is a terrible weapon in the hands of the Certain – you can ALWAYS find something to back your views

    best, G

  5. Well that’s how I feel when you start on economics!

    (Though i’ve less excuse as, after all, your blog’s about, er, economics…)

    Anyway, Giles Fraser used to be fellow in Philosophy at Wadham College, Oxford Uni. He is very, very sharp. And from what people say, a very nice guy too.

    As for The Smiths, well I guess if you want to describe one of the most original acts in the history of popular music as “monotonal drone” that’s your prerogative. As for Bruce, it all depends on where you start: there’s some bad records out there, but also some really great ones.

  6. Wadham – had a nice girlfriend there for, ooh, about 5 weeks – very left wing place, loads more fun than Worcester College Ox where I was.

    I always thought that Johnny Marr was brilliant, and Morrissey sounded like he was singing a psalm on top. With Bruce, I just keep trying, get nowhere. For me, the late discover of the Roses changed everything. And Gomez.

  7. This post is crying out for an ill-thought out, arrogant and illogical response from a young radical. I would step up to the plate, but I’d like to try and a bit better than that. I know you’re admitting to it being a bit of a rant, but are you really suggesting that everyone who makes mistakes in their political diagnosis at a young age should never try and influence political opinions again? My immediate thought is that this just sounds a bit illiberal…

    Isn’t part of the liberal view of not forcing world views on others that we also shouldn’t silence others? I realise that you’re not saying that, but the implication seems to be that once you’ve done something stupid you should recognise this and shut up forever. Perhaps the point of this is that those who’ve made these errors haven’t recognised this, but then it seems a bit odd to pick on Osler, who does apologise.

    I think this post just emphasises for me the importance of political debate. We have to accept that Peter Hitchens is allowed to spout his views. And anyone with any sense will bear in mind that he has shown very little perspicacity, humility or anything else worth learning from. But he’s got a right to spout it, and others have a right (a duty even dare I say it?) to try and convince people that his views are not worth regarding.

    There also seems to be a danger here that you’re suggesting that views which aren’t moderate shouldn’t be aired, because their likely to be stupid, illogical or nasty. Sure we have to accept that some immoderate, radical views are racist, sexist, horrendous etc. but shouldn’t we encourage people to question the status quo and not to accept things just because they are that way. Sometimes well-meaning people will come up with the extreme views, which might well suggest wrong solutions, or have disastrous consequences, or show a dreadful lack of understanding. But sometimes they might further our knowledge.

    Maybe I’m just saying this because I’ve thought some stupid things in the past (like tuition fees being a bad idea) and would like to think that my political opinions are not totally invalidated because of that.

  8. (written from mobile so excuse brevity)

    Dom, you’re right: nothing I’ve written justifies or indeed advocates ‘silencing’ the wrong – and, given his previous belief that an abstract thing – ‘worker struggle’ – justifies murder, it is better & more honest that DO should come out * mea culpa than stick to his guns. Voltaire, defend to Death, etc

    I would query the applicability of the Tuition fee analogy though – there is a real problem of values in DO’s prior view, whereas TF-haters can often be opersuaded by facts.

    I was in fact using one issue to have a go at another of my hobby horses. In politics/commentary, the loudest/most extreme view can dominate. In govt a liberal minister would feel an obligation to balance. This virtue is too little rewarded – and its opposite too little punished. Particularly in light of continuing sympathy (in the comments) to DO’s previous position – it was not a ‘well-meaning mistake’ but a catastrophic failure of balance & reason.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s